4. How Does Dispensationalism Deny the Gospel?
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. -Gal 1:6-10
Dispensationalists have long been accused of teaching multiple methods of salvation. Dispensational leaders (excepting the Bullingerite or Consistent sects) have long denied these charges. Denial without refutation is, however, meaningless. Let us examine some of the evidence.
The Scofield Problem
C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) pastor of the First Congregational Church in Dallas, Texas, and then of Moody Church, Northfield, Massachusetts, discussed with Arno C. Gaebelein his plan to write an annotated version of the Bible in 1901:
‘One night, about the middle of that week, Dr. Scofield suggested, after the evening service, that we take a stroll along the shore. It was a beautiful night. Our walk along the shore of the sound lasted until midnight. For the first time he mentioned the plan of producing a reference Bible, and outlined the method he had in mind. He said he had thought of it for many years and had spoken to others about it, but had not received much encouragement. The scheme came to him in the early days of his ministry in Dallas, and later, during the balmy days of the Niagara Conferences he had submitted his desire to a number of brethren, who all approved of it, but nothing came of it. He expressed the hope that the new beginning and this new testimony in Sea Cliff might open the way to bring about the publication of such a Bible with references and copious footnotes.’ – Moody Monthly 43 ( 1943 ): 278.
The end result of this discussion was the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, combining an attractive format, notes, and cross references which became perhaps the most influential tome of dispensational theology to date. ‘The teachings of dispensational premillennialism on prophecy have spread widely in Canada and the United States, due especially to the influence of the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible and it subsequent editions.’3 The theology presented by Scofield in his Reference Bible is normative dispensational doctrine, thus the significance of the quote here:
‘As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ….The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation’4
Scofield here states that salvific grace is a New Testament phenomenon, unavailable in previous dispensations. Notice that Scofield explains that legal obedience was the condition of salvation in the previous dispensation, but that now faith in Christ is the condition that must be met. This is consistent with Scofield’s definition of a dispensation.
A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.5
If, indeed, man is tested in respect to obedience to the will of God in each of these ‘dispensations’, what is the reward – or punishment? If the reward is salvation, as obviously Scofield taught concerning the dispensation of Law, that salvation is not of grace but of works! The dispensationalist, misunderstanding the concept of Law and Gospel, offers salvation to those who meet the condition of the ‘dispensation’ in which they are tested, thus even in the dispensation of Grace, faith becomes a work which entitles us to Christ. If one can only muster from the depths of one’s heart enough ‘faith’, one can meet the condition of this dispensation and be rewarded with salvation.6
Orthodox Christian doctrine, on the other hand, adamantly teaches that man is dead in trespasses and sin, cannot improve his condition in the slightest, and that it is Christ alone who justifies the ungodly. Faith is the gift of God, through the new birth, a work of the Holy Spirit by Word and Sacrament.
It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Rejected in this connection are the Pelagians and others who deny that original sin is sin, for they hold that natural man is made righteous by his own powers, thus disparaging the sufferings and merit of Christ. 7
In answer to the ‘Scofield problem’ dispensationalism began to redefine the term ‘dispensation’. The New Scofield Reference Bible of 1967 repeats Scofield’s terminology, but the modern commentators elaborate on 1909 version indicating that the definition implies three concepts: a new divine revelation, the nature of man’s stewardship with respect to it, and a certain time period for it. These implied concepts are then qualified to such an extent as to make the delineations meaningless. Significantly, this new definition of dispensations brings into question whether the term means anything at all.
The purpose of each dispensation, then, is to place man under a specific rule of conduct, but such stewardship is not a condition of salvation. In every past dispensation unregenerate man has failed, and he has failed in this present dispensation and will in the future. But salvation has been and will continue to be available to him by God’s grace through faith.8
Revisionist dispensationalism now states that the purpose of the dispensations are not salvific. What, then, is the purpose of the testing in regards to the ‘specific rule of conduct’? What is the significance of man’s failure in the various dispensations? It seems that while Scofield might have been too frank in his elucidation, his successors have so qualified the term ‘dispensation’ as to remove from it any semblance of meaning. Note also, that ‘available to him by God’s grace through faith’ still leaves it unclear as to whether ‘faith’ is an innate ability of fallen man, or is a product of the new birth.
The central question here is whether dispensational theology recognizes, as does orthodox Christianity, that regeneration is the source of faith. Dispensational theology sees the sequence of dispensations as opportunities for fallen man to attain to God. Though in past dispensations none passed the test, the opportunity was there – ‘Do this and live’. During the current dispensation of Grace, the bar has been lowered – all that is required is ‘faith’. If a man will avail himself of his ‘chance’, and exercise his own moral ability to believe, he will be entitled to the grace of God in Christ.
The Chafer Problem
Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), a student of Scofield, established Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, and led dispensationalism’s flagship school for it’s first thirty years. Chafer also produced the first definitive systematic theology of dispensationalism. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols., (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948) is a standard articulation of Scofieldian dispensational thought. Chafer, always faithful to his mentor, stated – ‘It goes on record that the Dallas Theological Seminary uses, recommends, and defends the Scofield Bible.‘9
That the founder of the school known as the ‘Jerusalem of Dispensationalism’, and the author of her Systematic Theology might make statements such as the following comes as no surprise to those who understand the grievous error of the dispensational system.
‘With the call of Abraham and the giving of the Law… there are two widely different standardized, divine provisions whereby man, who is utterly fallen, might come into the favor of God.’10
Chafer’s Systematic Theology makes the point that in the Old Testament men were justified by the Law, while in the New Testament faith was without works.11 Again, in his Dispensationalism, p. 430, Chafer makes plain his misunderstanding of grace –
As before stated, whatever God does for sinful men on any terms whatsoever [being made possible through the death of Christ] is to that extent, an act of divine grace; for whatever God does on the ground of Christ’s death is gracious in character, and all will agree that a divine covenant which is void of all human elements is more gracious in character than one which is otherwise. These distinctions apply only to the divine side of the covenant. On the human side… there is no exercise of grace in any case; but the human requirements which the divine covenant imposes may be either absolutely lacking, or some so drastically imposed as to determine the destiny of the individual.
Chafer, in keeping with the standard definition of a dispensation, sees the Atonement as making grace possible throughout the various ages, which allows salvation to be viewed as gracious regardless of the added requirements of that specific dispensation. So, under Grace (…the human requirements which the divine covenant imposes may be either absolutely lacking…) if one can generate the necessary faith one might receive grace. Under the dispensation of Law (…or some so drastically imposed as to determine the destiny of the individual.), one might be required to keep the Law.
In either case, the salvation obtained is gracious (according to Chafer), while in fact it is salvation by grace in neither. Modern dispensationalists may argue that what Scofield and Chafer had meant has not been properly discerned from what they have said. To that we say, look to the Consistent (or Bullingerite) Dispensationalist who has done nothing other than carry dispensationalism consistently to it’s logical conclusions.
The Kingdom Offer
Dispensationalism believes that the purpose of the first advent of Jesus Christ was to offer an earthly Kingdom to the Jews. This Kingdom would reinstate the Old Testament legal system and it’s expansion to the entire world under the Messiah. When the Jews rejected Jesus Christ and His Kingdom offer, plan B went into effect and Christ went to the cross to initiate the dispensation of Grace and the ‘mystery church’. Had Israel received her King there would have been no cross – and no Gospel!
When Jesus came, He made a bona fide offer of the Kingdom and power to the people of Israel.12
What then, if the Jews had done their duty and accepted this offer, of the salvation of mankind? What of the cross – ‘without shedding of blood there is no remission’? What of the prophecies pointing to the cross? How could Christ offer a Kingdom that He could not permit to be established lest there be no salvation of man by His shed Blood? Dispensationalists attempt to absolve themselves from the concept of making God a liar by claiming He knew no one would call His bluff.
He knew before He came that they would refuse it – knew from all eternity; hence, there are prophets which speak of His coming to die for us.13
Still, the problem stands. Even if Christ made an earthly Kingdom offer knowing that the Jews would refuse, the offer could not have been redeemed. An offer that is impossible to honor is not a sincere offer but a fraud. Our God makes no insincere offers. Besides, if Christ came to establish an earthly Kingdom for the Jews surely He had opportunity, and the support of the masses –
Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone. -John 6:15
No, Christ came at the set time to die on the cross, to redeem fallen mankind. All true sons of Abraham recognized Him. It is at the Ascension that He received His Kingdom, and He is seated now on His Throne!
Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. -Eph 1:15-21
The Dispensational Distinction
Between Israel and the Church
Comparing, then, what is said in Scripture concerning Israel and the Church, we find that in origin, calling, promises, worship, principles of conduct and future destiny all is contrast.14
Perhaps the central doctrine of dispensationalism is the distinction between Israel and the church. Dispensationalism sees Israel as an earthly people with earthly promises, and the church as a heavenly people with heavenly promises. Membership in Israel is by natural birth.15 One enters the church by supernatural birth. Dispensationalists view Israel and the church as having distinct eternal destinies. Israel will receive an eternal earthly Kingdom, and the church an eternal heavenly Kingdom.
Darby, the father of dispensationalism, stated the distinction in the clearest of terms ‘The Jewish nation is never to enter the church.’16 Ryrie considers this the most important dispensational distinction, and approves the statement that the ‘basic promise of Dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity.’17
In contrast, Christian theology has always maintained the essential continuity of Israel and the church. The elect of all the ages are seen as one people, with one Savior, one destiny. This continuity can be shown by examining a few Old Testament prophesies with their fulfillment. Dispensationalists admit that if the church can be shown to be fulfilling promises made to Israel their system is doomed.
If the church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere in the Scriptures, then [dispensational] premillennialism is condemned.18
Promise to Israel –
‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, Which cannot be measured or numbered. And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ There it shall be said to them, ‘You are sons of the living God.’ -Hosea 1:10
Fulfillment in the church –
What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As He says also in Hosea: ‘I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.’ ‘And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.’ -Romans :22-26
Promise to Israel –
Then I will sow her for Myself in the earth, And I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; Then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!” -Hosea 2:23
Fulfillment in the church –
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. -1 Peter 2:9-10
Promise to Israel –
‘On that day I will raise up The tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, And repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, And rebuild it as in the days of old; -Amos 9:11
Fulfillment in the church –
‘Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. ‘And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.’ ‘Known to God from eternity are all His works. -Acts 15:14-18
In the same manner there are many Old Testament passages referring to Israel that are in the New Testament applied directly to the church.
Spoken to Israel –
‘And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. ‘And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, As the LORD has said, Among the remnant whom the LORD calls. -Joel 2:28-32
Applied to the church –
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place…’But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved.’ -Acts 2:1,16-21
Spoken to Israel –
‘And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.’ -Exodus 19:6
Applied to the church –
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; -1 Peter 2:9
Spoken to Israel –
‘My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people. -Ezekiel 37:27
Applied to the church –
And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.’ -2 Cor 6:16
Spoken to Israel –
‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. -Lev 19:2
Applied to the church –
but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ -1 Peter 1:15-16
Spoken to Israel –
‘Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah– -Jer 31:31
Applied to the church –
Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. -Luke 22:20
The New Covenant is particularly problematic for the dispensationalist, as Jeremiah 31 is undeniably addressed to Israel. The New Covenant is the very heart of the Gospel, yet if the church is fulfilling the promise given to Israel under the New Covenant, dispensationalism is dead. Ryrie, in his early writings, makes this significant statement:
If the church does not have a new covenant, then she is fulfilling Israel’s promises, for it has been clearly shown that the Old Testament teaching on the new covenant is that it is for Israel. If the church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere else in the Scriptures, then [dispensational] premillennialism is condemned. One might well ask why there are not two aspects to the one new covenant. This is the position held by many premillennialists, but we agree that the amillennialist has every right to say of this view that it is a practical admission that the new covenant is fulfilled in and to the church.19
Dispensationalism has used various arguments to get around this insurmountable problem. Perhaps the boldest was the concept of two New Covenants. Chafer appears to be the originator of the idea:
There remains to be recognized a heavenly covenant for the heavenly people, which is also styled like the preceding one for Israel a ‘new covenant.’ It is made in the blood of Christ (cf. Mark 14:24) and continues in effect throughout this age, whereas the new covenant made with Israel happens to be future in its application. To suppose that these two covenants — one for Israel and one for the Church — are the same is to assume that there is a latitude of common interest between God’s purpose for Israel and His purpose for the Church.20
Consistent Dispensationalists have long recognized the problem. E.W. Bullinger noted that the cup of the Lord’s Supper was indeed the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-33, directed to Israel and not the church, and for that very reason the ‘mystery’ church should not administer it. Moderate (inconsistent) dispensationalists, not understanding the Sacrament, but still desiring to preserve their ‘memorial’ sought to maneuver out of this predicament. John F. Walvoord, who became the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, and who appears to be the leading contemporary champion of the second new covenant, writes:
The point of view that holds to two covenants in the present age has certain advantages. It provides a sensible reason for establishing the Lord’s supper for believers in this age in commemoration of the blood of the new covenant. The language of I Corinthians 11:25 seems to require it: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do as often as ye drink it in remembrance of me.’ It hardly seems reasonable to expect Christians to distinguish between the cup and the new covenant when these appear to be identified in this passage. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul speaking of himself states: ‘Our sufficiency is of God: who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant.’ It would be difficult to adjust the ministry of Paul as a minister of the new covenant if, in fact, there is no new covenant for the present age. 21
Walvoord, discussing the Epistle to the Hebrews, contrasts the Mosaic (old) Covenant, the New Covenant, and his novel ‘Better’ Covenant. The identification of the New Covenant which replaces the Old Covenant would seem to be certain by the lengthy quotation from Jeremiah 31 which the Epistle contains, and thus it is with some astonishment that one reads Walvoord’s denial:
The Epistle to the Hebrews by its title is addressed to the Jewish people. The epistle is planned to show that Christ and Christian doctrine supersedes Moses and the Mosaic covenant. The argument in Hebrews eight proceeds on the revelation that Christ is mediator of a better covenant than Moses, established on better promises. At this point, the writer shows that the Mosaic covenant was never intended to be eternal (in contrast to other Jewish covenants) and that the Old Testament itself anticipated the day of its passing. To prove this point, the passage from Jeremiah on the new covenant is quoted (Heb. 8:8-12)…There is no appeal at all to the content of the new covenant with Israel as being identical with the better covenant of which Hebrews speaks. The very absence of such an appeal is as strong as any argument from silence can be. 22
Dispensationalists, determined to cling to their false distinction between Israel and the church are forced to abandon the New Covenant’s application in any real sense to the church. Albertus Pieters, however, representing non-dispensational commentators in general, explains:
This is entirely correct [that Israel is meant in Jeremiah 31], and it is to the house of Israel that the fulfillment came. The objection arises from a failure to perceive that the Christian church in its origin was an Israelitish body, full qualified to claim the promises made to Israel…. The Christian church once having been established many Gentiles came into it, but that did not make it a ‘church from among the Gentiles’, any more than the naturalization of many Italians in our country makes it a nation from among the Italians…. they were all Israelite members of the Old Covenant people of God, to whom the promise had been made. Strictly in line with the promise and with the prevailing principle of the covenant history, to them, the believing remnant, the promise of the New Covenant was fulfilled. That promise was, ‘To the House of Israel and the House of Judah,’ and to the designated parties the fulfillment came; to all who were, in the sight of God and according to a just interpretation of history, still worthy of the name: ‘Israel and Judah.’…. In all this, are we spiritualizing the prophecy as some allege? Not at all. We are stating a historical fact, clearly contained in the sacred records, that in or about the spring of the year 30 A.D., the mass of those who then called themselves Israelites ceased to be such for prophetic and covenant purpose, having forfeited their citizenship in the commonwealth of Israel by refusing to accept the Messiah, and that after this event all the privileges of the Abrahamic Covenant and all the promises of God belonged to the believing remnant, and to them only; which remnant was therefore and thereafter the true Israel and Judah, the Seed of Abraham, the Christian church. Thus the promise was fulfilled strictly and definitely to the designated parties.23